A Transcendental Storehouse For Culture: An Interview Of Lauren Halsey


text by Taliah Mancini

photographs by Oliver Kupper

Lauren Halsey’s dream-world is cosmic, funky, carpeted, and technicolored; an atemporal, fantastical, and hyperreal vision of black liberation which she conjures via site-specific installations that celebrate her childhood home.

Iconography and aesthetics (not to mention philosophy, lived experiences, and informal economies) of the diaspora serve as Halsey’s blueprint. Manipulating found objects and cultural artifacts from South Central, she deftly plays the past and present off one another to build a black utopia outside of time. Incorporating, for example, smashed-CD’s, aquarium plants, artificial crystals and rocks, hair extension packs, incense oils, aerosol spray cans, pan-African flags, tchotchkes, figurines, and black-business signage, she shapes a community-based, architecturally-rooted, afro-futurist cosmology.

Perhaps most explicitly, Halsey’s work is embedded in a spatial analysis of racial capitalism. Recognizing the power of oppressive built environments, she works to dismantle hegemony’s spatial ordering—a subversive move against cultural erasure and panoptical city planning. In response to the calculated displacement targeting South Central, she invests in her own architecture, preserving black-owned shops and community spaces by archiving her long-time home. She not only presents a cutting critique of the modern consumer economy but also an active re-constructing of heterotopia.

Creatively and politically, Halsey has carved out a space for herself in an art world that is often complicit in the very systems she re-imagines. With installations that are reminiscent of few conventional object-oriented art works, she is creating a new visual genre, pushing those who enter her fantasy to re-envision the perspective-altering potentials of the visual, aural, sensorial, and spatial. And, firmly rooted in love for her neighborhood, her work is defined in equal measure by healing from trauma and honoring history. Halsey’s dream-world is a moving through abuse to create new realities; an optimistic, grounded, and empowered archiving of the future.  

TALIAH MANCINI: To start, what does your neighborhood mean to you?

LAUREN HALSEY: Neighborhood Pride, Gorgeous color palettes and aesthetics, Black history as it relates to The Great Migration, Family History, My future.

MANCINI: When did you begin creating art?

HALSEY: Intentionally in the 12th grade. Oddly enough one of our first art projects was a carving project that I’m revisiting for my upcoming public project, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project. I was already intrigued and deeply obsessed with collecting and creating records in my notebooks. The 12th grade carving project gave me the form.

MANCINI: I’ve seen pictures of your early maximalist collages. Did your documenting of South Central emerge with these Photoshopped images?

HALSEY: No, documenting and archiving signs, posters, mix CDs, parties, menus, incense n oils, party flyers, hairstyles, bus routes, businesses, knick knacks, t-shirts, greeting cards, local landmarks, city blocks, voices, etc. was already happening. I used the archive I was engaging to create the maximalist blueprints of my neighborhood a few years later when I took my first Photoshop class at El Camino Community College.

MANCINI: Your work is, most notably, a community-based practice. Where does that process start, both conceptually and physically?

HALSEY: With all of the odds already stacked against working class black and brown folks in low income neighborhoods in LA (food, education, police, housing, etc), I can’t imagine not having a community-based practice. My interest is to not only affirm folks through my practice/the artwork but most importantly to do so with tangible results: paid jobs, transcendent programming, free resources and workshops. My upcoming public project, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project will address this conceptually and physically. Here’s a blurb on it:

The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project (C.D.H.P.) is a hybrid public art installation and community market created in collaboration with the Crenshaw District that will build and reinforce local economies of South Central LA that can sustain the pressures of rapid gentrification. The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project will exist on an empty lot where over the course of a 3-6 month public installation, four autonomous 16 ft. hieroglyphic towers with open circulation will be constructed. Each tower will include a series of rooms covered in hieroglyphic-style engravings on the interiors and exteriors. Upon entering the structure, the public will be invited to make their own "hieroglyphs" by carving into a series of blank panels serving as a medium to express narratives, share news, honor community leaders, celebrate events, and leave obituaries or memorials. This visual archive of and for the neighborhood will allow community members the freedom to commemorate and monumentalize themselves and one another in a city (and nation) where the place-making strategies of black and brown subjects are increasingly deleted from the landscape.

Through programming that generates paid jobs and provides tangible resources through free workshops on entrepreneurship, The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project provides and examines how alternate modes of community building can take place, while providing community members productive inroads to be engaging with, participating in, and benefiting from the top-down pace of development encouraged by Los Angeles' economic imperatives. Importantly, the public project’s investment in community artmaking will document and inscribe into the four towers the plural experience of communities who rarely benefit from, for example, gentrifying landscapes that privilege the lives and experiences of upwardly mobile middle classes. The towers provide space for the city's most overlooked citizens to describe their iconographies, aesthetic styles, informal economies, leisure activities, celebrations, oppression, local histories, and potential futures in the form of a tangible community monument. It is my hope that the publics' engravings and the informal economies The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project creates will inspire productive dialogues about liberation for South Central LA from within, beginning with our dollars.

MANCINI: Your exploration of architecture is brilliant. When did you become interested in re-imagining the built environment?

HALSEY: I’ve always been deeply, deeply, deeply into PFunk. They empowered my imagination at a young age. Early on I was very intrigued by the space making that was happening with PFunk seamlessly on the scale of worlds (outerspace, place, blackness, queerness, me). They beamed me up and into their radical worlds without me ever having to leave my bedroom. They left me totally transformed, always. Who I was/am will always be enough to participate. That relationship to space making carries over to my work where I remix and propose new spaces with what we already have and who we already are, to conjure new reflections on self-determination, affirmation, community wealth building, love, Funk, etc.

My interest in architecture is also biographical as it relates to growing up and living in a LA with so much oppressive architecture and always having questions around who’s building our architecture for us.In architecture school, I became really into the dialog of 60’s/70’s fantasy architecture.

MANCINI: Can you talk about your play with architecture in reference to the resistance of gentrification in South Central?

HALSEY: I can’t omit architecture and our built environment outside of the convo of gentrification. There should be, and are many, responses. I’m interested in responding through interventions with “for us by us architecture.” An architecture that representationally and structurally comes from us to empower us. An architecture that doesn’t signify erasure to disempower us. A Funky architecture. An architecture that comes from our hands.

MANCINI: How do you describe the way funk (Parliament/Funkadelic, Gospel Funk, Jheri Curl Funk, etc.) informs your cosmic black utopia?

HALSEY: Density. Layers. Immersion. Maximalism. Control. Black Style. Black Aesthetics. Deep Time.

MANCINI: What about outer space?

HALSEY: Outer space is limitless. White supremacy, racism classism, sexism, nepotism, consumerism, etc. aren’t the order there. There’s great freedom in contextualizing my projections for the neighborhood in an infinity space without Earth’s baggage.

MANCINI: And nature?

HALSEY: Funkifying nature has a lot to do with my interest in fantasy nature. Seeing nature through Funk sounds. The effect of a Funk nature that’s an assemblage of multiple geographies while remixing and also, sampling place, texture, form via my own renditions of the landscape.

MANCINI: You grew up in South Central, spent time in New Haven for graduate school at Yale, and then moved back to your childhood home. What are your impressions of the LA art communities?

HALSEY: There are so many because of the enormous geographical spread in LA. I spend my downtime in Atlanta. I haven’t been consistently in LA long enough to truly belong to a community, but I think I’m forging one and beginning to join existing ones.

MANCINI: Where (and what) in Los Angeles inspires you?

HALSEY: Black LA, the beaches, the sunsets, bonfires, candy cars, ice cream trucks, the pan man, the elote man, the tamale man, signs, hair, sunsets, taco trucks, freeways at night, hot days, rooftop pools, walking, riding the bus, growing up in church, ceviche, paletas, soul food, my family, chasing lowriders, the roosters, the hills, everything.

MANCINI: How did “we still here, there” at MOCA come about?

HALSEY: I was researching Chinese grotto heavens and became interested in the Mogao Caves. I was intrigued by the cave as a super structure rock form but also, as its function as a transcendental storehouse for culture: research archives of lost cultures, specific histories, discourse and ideas. I proposed to MOCA that I would build a cave-grotto with a series of connected chambers and corridors marking the plurality of black daily cultural experiences in downtown South Central LA. Some chambers include local ephemera and iconographies (i.e. South Central superhero, Okeneus’s original collages, selections of incense n oils, black figurines, mix cds, local newspaper clippings, portraitures, etc.). Other moments will be more speculative, including imaginary of future South Central landscapes, memorials, miniature shrines and statues, poems, rock carvings and soundscapes. Conceptually, I wish to create an aesthetic-sociopolitical record and overview of contemporary South Central in order to mark the evolution and narrative shifts of neighborhoods as they are being increasingly deleted from the LA landscape. Community identities are being lost and some histories aren’t being preserved (i.e. displacement via market-rate condominiums, new stadiums, developments, etc). The long-term goal is to create a permanent public cave-grotto in my neighborhoods that centuries from now will be excavated and inhabited by the future.

MANCINI: It seems like an important component of the installation is you regularly changing the space. What is your role as “pharaoh, high-voltage Funkateer and master architect”?

HALSEY: I can’t give all of my recipes away but in a nutshell, Keep building, Keep visioning, Keep Funking so that the work isn’t a set or an eulogy of itself. It’s a living environment that will accumulate energy, poetics and an archive through the run of the exhibition.

MANCINI: In what ways is the installation connected to your on-going artistic project?

HALSEY: Preservation. Past/Future. Monument. Community. Archive.

MANCINI: What is next for you? Kindgom Splurge? Any new projects on the horizon?

HALSEY:The last iteration of Kingdom Splurge happened a couple years ago. It’s put to rest for now. The Crenshaw District Hieroglyph Project is next. I’m building a prototype architecture of it for the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA Show that opens in June.

we still here, there was curated by Lanka Tattersall. The exhibition is on view at MOCA Grand Avenue through September 3, 2018. Lauren Halsey will be in gallery every other week on alternating Fridays and Saturdays, beginning Saturday, March 10. For more details visit MOCA. Follow Lauren Halsey on Instagram @summeverythang. Follow AUTRE @autremagazine.

Bad Woman: An Interview of Katya Grokhovsky

katya grokhovsky.jpg

text by Abbey Meaker

portrait by Katya Grokhovsky


Katya Grokhovsky is an interdisciplinary artist, a curator, and an educator whose process-centric art practice combines installation, performance, video, photo, and collage. Through different expressions of each media, Grokhovsky creates immersive environments and captivating characters that assertively bring to fore issues related to gender, labor, alienation, and displacement, often using her own body to create a relationship between the personal and the political. 

Recently, I came across Grokhovsky’s video work titled “Bad Woman” in which an eccentric character wearing an animal-like mask, fur coat, and high-heels struggles with a stuffed parrot affixed to her shoulder, to situate herself comfortably on a wooden chair placed in a rural environment. Watching this, I felt I were witnessing something new, something authentic- an uncanny character whose discomfort was amplified, satirized. Yet I was able to relate to and recognize in her a sense of resolve, a comfort in her own skin, a resilience. According to Grokhovsky, “Bad Woman” is exhausted; she is many of us; she is what we whisper under our breaths, daily. She gladly fails; she is not here to please anybody; she is eccentric, wild, unruly, unmade, remade, deconstructed.

On a snowy Vermont day I connected with Grokhovsky to discuss this work, her curatorial efforts, and her solo exhibition, System Failure at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College. 

ABBEY MEAKER: At what point in your life did you begin making things? Was there an inherent interest in art, or did life organically pull you in that direction? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Ever since I can remember I was making something with my hands, drawing on all types of surfaces, designing costumes, writing and staging plays, deconstructing and reassembling objects. I have continuously made art in some way and have been interested in many creative disciplines ever since I was very young, including fashion, interior design, literature, theater, dance and all types of decorative and visual arts. My parents encouraged me and took me to drawing classes since I was 5 years old in the former USSR, in Ukraine, where I went on to art school for children from 10 to 14 years of age, and then onto art school in Australia, Europe and USA, and here I am, a fully-fledged adult artist. I guess I have never really stopped or truthfully grown up. Art making is the way I interpret and experience life and I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

ABBEY MEAKER: Of the mediums you employ – installation, performance, video, photography – would you say there is one that more holistically translates your ideas and/or an experience you aim to create for a viewer? How do they work together? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I would say installation is the medium that brings it all together for me and creates the desired effect of a totally immersive environment. Video is another vehicle, which can incorporate all of my interests into one format and contain it within itself. I would love to make feature-length films one day, with a cast and a crew. In my installation work, I am able to position, compose and collage many of my works simultaneously and play with the site, size and space. I frequently include performance and video, sound, sculpture and painting, through various experimental propositions of complex situations and worlds within worlds, allowing the viewer to explore and experience a new ground, new system of being, fresh and absurd territories.


ABBEY MEAKER: Your work has been called feminist - do you identify with this label?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I truly detest labels of any kind, however it is a label I do accept. In a perfect world, an artist would be an artist, not female artist or woman artist or a feminist artist, simply because she expresses strong opinions about her life experience on this planet. I am an artist, a woman and a feminist. I work with feminist themes and look at the world through this lens, so my work gets positioned as such. It is the way I live my life, the way I view the humankind and how I keep on. My views and the stances I take do affect my work and the leitmotifs I am interested in. That makes it feminist. Labels make it easier to digest, to create boundaries, to identify, to exclude and commercialize and segregate, I understand that. Being feminist lines me up historically with some of my favorite artists, writers and mentors, and that is an honor. I do wish we lived in a post-label world, where artists were simply expressing their views in different ways.

ABBEY MEAKER: What do you think 'feminist' actually means within the present context of contemporary art?  

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I think feminist in the context of contemporary art means inclusive, equal, politically charged, questioning, rebellious, critical and non-compliant. It means not taking it lying down, it is a way of life, so it should translate into art that way as well. I am interested in challenging all notions of societal prejudice, standards, systems, hierarchies, specifically patriarchy and capitalism. Being a feminist and an artist has literally saved my life and continues to help me navigate this man’s world as a woman and a maker, so I firmly believe in both as vehicles of analysis, refusal, rage, protest, as well as acts of radical joy, acceptance and pleasure.

ABBEY MEAKER: Can you talk a little bit about the characters in your performances? I am particularly interested in Bad Woman and Bunny Bad.

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Bad Woman is a character I initially developed for my last solo exhibition in 2017, as a post-election entity, a persona, who truly cannot handle this world anymore, and is gradually unraveling and de-conditioning herself. She is a bad woman, an angry, enraged woman. She is tired, exhausted, she is many of us. Internally, she is what we whisper under our breath daily. She is simply trying too hard, gladly fails, she is not here to please anybody. She is eccentric, wild, unruly, unmade, remade, deconstructed. Through her character, I began a lifelong project of deconditioning, feminine de-stabling, and decentralizing. Bunny Bad followed up, as the next, less gendered character, through which I am able to become a kid again, to play without any results, to explore, to be funny, grotesque, comic, stupid, uncoordinated, ugly. These characters help my own psyche and bring out the hidden creatures that live in me, and all of us, the ones we push away, or oppress, or pretend do not exist.

ABBEY MEAKER: Your installations feature prominently found objects- is the process by which you find these pieces an important part of the work? What are they meant to symbolize? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I am naturally both a collector and a destroyer of objects. These traits come from a childhood in the Soviet Union, where materialism did not yet fully exist - as well as immigration, during which belongings were forever discarded and left behind. I am interested in consumerism, in greed and capitalism, where a surplus of objects of desire is not only the sign of our time, but is killing the planet, as well as personal attachment, longing and memory. Most of the objects that appear in my work come from the street; flea markets, thrift stores and online shopping. I employ both intuition and attraction and pull to a particular object as well as rigorous research, especially on the Internet. Each work requires a different approach and is catered specifically to every site and place, depending on the theme and subject matter, be it a brand-new, extremely large beach ball from Amazon Prime, symbolizing an exceptionally futile, wasteful, yet desirable and alluring object of fun, which is meant to last less than an hour, to giant, 8-foot plush teddy bears, to a discarded, old and broken musical instrument found on the streets of NYC, indicating loneliness, nostalgia and reminiscence.

ABBEY MEAKER: Do you consider your curatorial efforts a part of your art practice?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Yes, I consider my curatorial work to be an extension and expansion of my own art making studio practice, through which I am able to step out of my own pursuits and explore the community and art being made around me. I really enjoy going out to other artists’ studios, feeling the pulse of my city, envisioning an idea, putting works together, and designing projects. It is all a part of my existing in the world, my attempt at reaching out, at connecting the dots, facilitating for those, whose voices have often been unheard. 

ABBEY MEAKER: What are you hoping to achieve as an organizer supporting other artists?  

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I hope to create a space for the less recognized and commercially viable works, for artists, who have traditionally been excluded and discarded by the art canon. I curate difficult to exhibit works, made by voices that are marginalized in some way. As an immigrant and a woman, I have often been excluded from the discourse myself and I simply try to correct the imbalance, one DIY project at a time. I am not very interested in the accepted, mainstream narrative, which has been fed to me all my life, that of the heterosexual white male artist. There are plenty of platforms for that, globally. I try to create an alternative that must not be alternative. 

ABBEY MEAKER: Are there certain ideas you can engage with as a curator more easily or more successfully than through your art practice?

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: Yes, I respond best to works which deal with process and are materially experimental and explore the body, as well as history, place and site. I often have a visceral response to art, including my own, so I need to be engaged not only intellectually, but bodily, somehow. I let my body speak before my head, when I am curating, but also when I make my own work. I trust my gut completely and rely heavily on my art intuition, which has never failed me yet. I am also interested in artists dealing and expressing their life experience autobiographically or through observation and research, as I do in my work. I don't respond well to extremely minimalist, or highly conceptual work without an engaging process involved in the making of it.

ABBEY MEAKER: You have a solo show titled System Failure at Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College that just opened on February 14 (congrats!) What are you showing? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I have been working on-site at the Martin Art Gallery as a visiting artist in residence at the college for the past four weeks and have created a new site-specific installation, comprised of found, collected and bought objects and sculpted assemblages, as well as several recent video performance works. The exhibition deals with the failure of the patriarchal system and society, through exploration of extreme overconsumption, desire and imposed stereotypes. I am interested in investigating gendered standards and structures, as well as particularly capitalist ideas of childhood, through color assignment (pink, blue), teddy bears, beach balls, inflatable unicorns and donuts, as well as plastic shop mannequins manipulated and sculpted with plaster and house paint. It is a complicated exhibition, which has evolved over a year and over the past month on site, through rigorous experimentation with materials, as well as my relationship to the place. I will perform live twice as part of the exhibition, in collaboration with students at Muhlenberg College, cast through the college-wide open all. I am interested in what the atmosphere of an academic institution brings to my work and vice versa, and am grateful to have been very generously supported by the college and the gallery with space, time and materials. 

ABBEY MEAKER: Any curatorial projects coming up you'd like to discuss? 

KATYA GROKHOVSKY: I have been appointed as lead curator of the Art in Odd Places festival and exhibition in 2018, taking place in October, the theme of which will be BODY and will be open for the first time to women, female identifying and non binary artists only. The festival is 14 years old this year and traditionally takes place along 14th street in Manhattan over four days, with performances, installations, sculptures and sound works in the public domain. This year I have also included a group exhibition at Westbeth gallery in the West Village as an extension of the festival and dialogue. I am very excited about this, as I was an artist who participated in the festival three times prior and not only do I know it well, but it is the first time an artist will curate this festival. The theme BODY stems from my own practice and curatorial pursuits and I am especially interested in the body of “other” taking up much needed space in the pubic imagination.

Katya Grokhovsky's SYSTEM FAILURE is on view through April 10th at Martin Art Gallery, Muhlenberg College 2400 Chew Street Allentown, PA 18104. The artist will be performing live in the gallery on March 14th at 5pm and at the closing ceremony on April 10th. She will also be conducting a lecture in the space on March 21st. Follow Katya on Instagram @KATYAGROKHOVSKY. Follow Autre on Instagram @AUTREMAGAZINE.


That's A Damn Fine Painting: An Interview With Artist Adam Parker Smith

text by Adam Lehrer


Painting. Multi-media. Installation. Sculpture. All of these tags have been applied to the practice of New York-based artist Adam Parker Smith. All of these tags are or have been correct in their labeling of Smith’s work. But as wild and conceptual as Smith’s work gets at times, he roots his art in the fundamentals of painting. Whether he’s making mylar balloon sculptures or putting together an exhibition of works stolen from other artists (as he did with his Lu Magnus Gallery exhibition Thanks), he’s doing so with acknowledgement of the fundamentals of painting: “I think my work can be jarring but a lot of times it is smooth and cumulative,” he says while laboring over the installation of his current solo show at The Hole in NYC, entitled Oblivious the Greek.  “The work moves well, it’s balanced, and its colors compliment it. One of the elements that make a work successful is being attractive.”

Polite, mild-mannered, and welding a distinguished moustache, Smith is humble while also knowing that he’s onto something. In past interviews, Smith has claimed that he is often short on ideas. That isn’t the case any more, and Smith says in some ways his practice has evolved past idea-oriented work. It seems that he has comforted into the idea that he is good at this art-making thing, and his voracious work ethic indicates that he wants to share his work with the world as much as possible. “I’m not saying that I have a unique gift but I’m hoping that I do,” says Smith. “There’s a possibility. I probably have a less narcissistic way of saying that…”

To clarify, Smith holds the belief that there is a difference between art that “looks like good art,” and art that is “actually good.” A smart and lucky person and can make art that looks like good art. But to make “actually good” art, one has to be gifted. He has grown more comfortable with the fact that making art might be his gift. His current show at The Hole is certainly testament towards this sentiment. Using synthetic materials (purchased with free shipping on Amazon, he adds), Smith created a range of sculptures like mylar balloons cast with resin along with fake foods, fake bronze, fake flowers, and lots of things fake. The faux qualities of the work are important to the aesthetics of and ideas contained within the objects: the materials used are always secondary to the outcome. The outcome is beautiful. These are “actually good” works of art.

Smith and I spoke at length a day before his show at The Hole opened, harping on the differences between art that “looks like good art” and “actually good” art, the virtues in cheap and synthetic materials, applying the fundamentals of painting to different mediums, the benefits of cruel professors, and what being “gifted” at something really means.

ADAM LEHRER: I was reading an old interview of yours where you said you liked the interdependency of materials and ideas. Is that a notion you still subscribe to?

ADAM PARKER SMITH: Yeah, that for me is constant. And I don’t normally like to adhere to rules, or at least arbitrary rules I make for myself within my practice because there are a lot of them. I find myself realizing the rules that I made, and then wondering if they’re necessary to abide by. 

LEHRER: Do personal rules help you push back against institutional rules or general rules within the art world?

SMITH: Well no, I mean my life is pretty conventional outside of my practice. Normally there are severe consequences for doing things in an unconventional manner. But I think when you’re making art that’s the preferred method. So what are the implications of that resistance outside of my practice? I’m not quite sure [laughs].

LEHRER: So you mean that’s the one arena in your life where you sort of get to go against the grain? I’m thinking of someone like Dash Snow, who seems to have gone against the grain in his art and his life and of course paid a price for the latter.

SMITH: I don't know, it’s hard to say. My practice takes up a large part of my life though so it’s nice. A lot of times I get to do what I love doing. I make a lot of work and spend a lot of time making work. It’s nice to be in charge of...something.

LEHRER: Going back to that original idea of interdependency of ideas and materials, how does that manifest? For this show for instance, how do you go from the original ideas to conceptualizing the materials to bring those ideas into fruition?

SMITH: Ideally, they conflate simultaneously. I got my Master’s degree in painting so a lot of times I think like a painter would. One of the big conversations people were always having involved how what you’re painting relates to how you’re painting. I felt like there always had to be that relationship for the painting to be successful so I had to use all these materials to try to find that connection. And further along in my practice I found myself getting closer to more two-dimensional painting, which has a more subtle or intellectual link between what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. So when I’m beginning to generate new ideas or developing an idea I try to think in that mode in-between the two questions, of what is it that I’m painting and how does the process relate to it. After enough practice it becomes second nature to a degree.

LEHRER: I read that you initially started making sculptures to give yourself figures to paint. But now you create sculptures to make and show sculptures, correct?

SMITH: Well there are a lot of painterly aspects (color, composition, form, line, positive and negative space) that I use in sculptures because they’re all beneficial. Although important, construction and utility are my secondary thoughts and I approach my sculptures with really simple painterly ideas.

LEHRER:  Do you often know the idea you’re trying to communicate before you put together a collection of work? Do you know what it’s going to look like but aren’t really sure how to express it?

SMITH: Ultimately I’m not interested in creating an idea-based work because I hate the idea of someone coming in and feeling finished with the work once the idea is communicated to them. In Ernest Hemingway’s Movable Feast (not that I’m really inspired by modern painting or writing because all those guys are bullies), there’s a part when [the characters] go to each other’s studios and say something like, “That’s a damn fine painting!” That’s their only critique. I want to make work that can make people say something like that. I don’t want to make a work that’s just good or pleasing. When they say ‘that’s a damn fine painting’, they’re not saying that it’s a good or pleasing painting but rather that it fulfills a place or purpose to exist in the world. However, the second you start talking about that too much the intentionality starts overshadowing any kind of magic.

 LEHRER: It’s hard to explain but I think I understand.

 SMITH: This is going to sound a lot like bullshit...but I think if an individual is a gifted writer or musician or painter, it’s difficult but not impossible to make a work that looks like what it should be. Making a painting that looks like a good painting is different from making an actually good painting. I think you’d have to be highly intelligent to make a painting that looks like a good painting. It’s possible and it happens a lot since there are lots of really smart people out there. But I think to make an actually good painting, you have to be gifted. That’s more rare. I’m listening to any sort of gift that I may have or working to find it.

LEHRER: Do you feel like you’ve found the exact thing you are gifted at?

SMITH: I don’t know, I’m making art and hoping that’s it [laughs].

LEHRER: It’s refreshing to hear that, actually.

SMITH: Or some people are just good at things. And if they just listen to their natural instincts, I think it’s possible for them to do something that they didn’t expect. You know when you see work that looks like it’s emulating good work and work that just looks like good work. I guess my point is that I try to make art in a way that comes from the gut and hope that if there is a gift, it comes through. That’s pretty corny [laughs].

LEHRER: That show you did where you stole all your friends’ art works: was that an exercise of you trying to juxtapose “art that looks good” versus “actually good art?”

SMITH: That was more of a social or conceptual project in terms of showing each theft as sort of the material I was working with. I’m not a curator and wasn’t really curating that show, even though I acted as curator in the way that I was making a painting. But with that said, all of the acquaintances of mine in the show are valued as artists and the works of theirs that I apprehended I thought were strong. As far as any further judgment on how gifted any of those artists were, there’s always a spectrum.

LEHRER: I hate to refer to the press release that The Hole put out, but I’m going to. It said something about how a lot of the imagery in these sculptures has this faux quality but in that fakeness there’s something real. Is that at all accurate in your thinking, and then if so, what is that truth?

SMITH: Painters go to the store to get paint that is a chemical-based product like zinc or aluminum. Those are the brushstrokes. Those are the elements of the composition and the composition is beautiful. Whether you’re going to propose to your partner on the beach or the parking lot of McDonalds, it’s a beautiful thing. Or if your child is born in the bathtub with monks chanting or in the backseat of a taxi, it’s still the beautiful birth of a child.

LEHRER: The outcome is still beautiful, the circumstances or materials used are less important than the final outcome.

PARKER: Yeah, so that’s just the material that I’m using right now. I like it--its accessible, it’s cheap, I can afford it, and I can order it online on Amazon prime for free two-day shipping [laughs]. But actually these synthetic materials are super technology: if you showed mylar balloons to someone 500 years ago they’d be mind-blown. And these were people sculpting beautiful figures with marble. I doubt that they’d be sculpting with marble after seeing these thin, mylar-inflated balloons that can float and weigh nothing. I think that any artist in any century ultimately would be drawn to these materials, because they’re undeniably beautiful. I think marble and bronze are incredible too. But it’s more expensive...and there’s no free shipping [laughs].

LEHRER: Your PS1 studio visit said you “Create elements to cultivate environments that are haunting, familiar, and alien." I know that the installation part of your artworks is important too, so are you trying to create a similar headspace? Should the installation have a similar quality to how you felt in the environment that you made the work in?

SMITH: No, not for me. I try to think of where the work is going to show as I’m making it. I envision it in that space and make it so that it’s appropriate for that. For instance, a lot of the work in here is way too large for my studio, so I had to put myself in this place while I was making it. So I think of the studio as a purely utilitarian place for myself. I

LEHRER: It’s always funny because I feel like journalists especially try to attach these pseudo spiritual qualities to the ways in which the artist works. But you don’t get the sense that maybe how you work or what you create changes with different tweaks and adjustments to your studio space or anything like that?

SMITH: I mean if I were to get a studio with higher ceiling I would make taller works. [laughs] Yeah, artists are like goldfish in the way they sort of expand and contract based on their environment. So it definitely affects me but living an interesting life is as important to my practice. It’s like a pressure cooker to be enriched in life and the studio space is like a small part of that.

 LEHRER: I read somewhere that you like incorporating illusion. I guess this show with the perceived weightlessness of these objects could even qualify as illusion. Do you have an intended effect for using illusion? Is it supposed to throw the viewer off or make the viewer connect with it?

SMITH: Everybody loves magic because it’s fun. We all know it doesn’t really exist but it’s fun anyway. I probably would do things the right way if I could afford it. Making undulating marble and gigantic casts of mylar balloons like Jeff Koons—that’s not a possibility for me. Much of the illusion comes from adversity: “how do I accomplish the things I want to accomplish with the means I have available?” But people like magic so it’s cool.

LEHRER: I read something about this volatile professor that you had in your grad school that lit a fire under your ass. Do you feel like you make best work under a lot of stress or duress?

SMITH: It’s hard to say because it’s been a long time since I’ve been at school and that stressed out, so I’m not sure what to compare that against. But I like to have some sort of agitation, whether it’s self-induced or an external factor. But after the initial shock of having that professor really go after me, I kinda’ dug it. It takes a lot of energy and consideration for someone to come in and lay into my work in a really aggressive manner. So I appreciated that from him.

LEHRER: Was he harsh to other classmates too?

SMITH: Not any that I knew, but I did hear he did that sort of thing to other people. He really singled me out, which made me feel even better in the end. I observed him years later with other students that were talentless in my opinion and probably his as well, and he just didn’t really give a shit about them. He would just say, “Looks good,” or whatever. Not to be egotistical again, but when he came into my studio I felt as though he saw potential. He felt obligated as a teacher to get on my ass about it.

LEHRER: It’s like that movie Whiplash.

SMITH: That’s funny because you watch that movie and walk away thinking if that guy was a bastard or was doing the kid a favor. 

LEHRER: I read that you sometimes struggle with ideas but I thought it was interesting because you’re making art all the time. So how does that work?

SMITH: Generating ideas has become less of a problem for me. I definitely do a lot of experimenting. I think you have to learn to read this new visual language that you’re speaking and it takes a while for you to be fluent in it. Sometimes I hit it right away but a lot of times I have to wait into it a little bit. To answer your question there are a lot of things that are produced in the studio that never leave. Or they take a walk into the dumpster.

 LEHRER: How do you know if something is worth showing? Is it intuitive or trained?

SMITH: I’ve never really been good at articulating those qualities. I know when it’s right for me and just rely on that.

Adam Parker Smith "Oblivious The Greek" is on view now until July 24 at the Hole Gallery, 312 Bowery, New York. Text, interview and photographs by Adam Lehrer. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE

Working In Real Time: An Interview With Multi-Disciplinary Artist Mai-Thu Perret

text by Adam Lehrer


Swiss multi-disciplinary artist Mai-Thu Perret understands that the most interesting artwork lives within the viewer’s mind, as an impression, memory, or dream, as much as it lives within the space that the art is presented. “I think the memory one carries of a work of art after one has left it behind, whether by turning the page or leaving the room in the museum is almost as important as the object itself,” said Perret in an email.

That isn’t to say that her work lacks aesthetic dazzle, however. Her recent exhibit at the David Kordansky booth at Frieze New York, for example, was one of the standout presentations of the fair. Through her brightly colored Roschach ink blot paintings and her female figurine sculptures, Mai-Thu communicates a narrative. But that narrative is best brought to life through the mental processes of the installation’s viewer. Perret loves poetry and writing, having received a BA from Cambridge University, but she is most concerned with creating the settings and the landscapes of the narratives of her art works as a point of genesis for the creation of art objects. The weaving together of these disparate ideas within the space often becomes the burden of the viewers, facilitating a challenging yet intellectually rewarding interplay between the artist and the viewer.

Perret is fascinated by the idea of the utopia, or, a unique landscape with a set of ideals that would theoretically facilitate a revisionist art history. Perret envisions a utopia in which the ideals and creativity of women and marginalized groups are as much a part of the conversation surrounding art history as those of men. Perhaps Perret’s best known and most labored over work, entitled The Crystal Frontier, is most exemplary of this idea. The Crystal Frontier is an imagined utopia of women living in the desert in New Mexico. Perret has built on the idea of The Crystal Frontier over her career, imagining its artifacts and furniture and fashions. The Crystal Frontier not only poses an fascinating conceptual narrative, but also has proven to be a place of contemplative creativity for Perret; one in which she can return to as a renewable source of inspiration.

Perret’s most recent exhibition at Nasher Sculpture Center, Sightings, builds upon The Crystal Frontier while connecting it to a real world community considered by Perret to be the kind of utopia that she has been imagining in her work. This utopia, a secular Kurdish community in the Syrian region of Rojava, champions female leaders and implements democratic ideals in a war-ravaged country. Perret has made eight human figures representing the women in all-female militia groups in the area.

At SOLUNA, Perret presented a performance entitled Figures in which a life-size marionette (whose body is animated by dancer Anja Schmidt) and a dancer enact an Indian mystic, a 19th-century American Shaker, a 1950s computer programmer, an Artificial Intelligence, and a journalist. At first, the dancer and puppet are separate entities, eventually merging and leaving the stage to make way for the journalist on a typewriter, played by Perret. In the style of Japanese puppetry known as Bunraku, there is no illusion concealing the fact that this is a fictional work. You can see the stage manipulations in real time. Perret asks that you accept her ideas as art without concealing the fact that this is anything other than art. Once again, Perret sets up the narrative’s background, leaving room for the viewer’s imagination to complete the piece.

Perret answered some of my questions about her ideas and work over email, discussing the narrative structure in her art, revising history to incorporate the ideas of the marginalized, and the majesty of the desert.

ADAM LEHRER: When learning about the premise for Figures, I couldn’t help but think about the Crystal Frontier. In the Crystal Frontier, women are living away from society, but forming their own society. In Figures, women are leaving their bodies through trance. It made me think of the idea that an alternative society can be a type of freedom, but liberation from the body is the ultimate freedom. Were you at all thinking along these lines when conceptualizing Figures?

MAI-THU PERRET: I wasn't really thinking about the Crystal Frontier when I was putting together Figures, but there are definitely a lot of common points and references. I've always been interested in ways one can leave one's self and identity behind. These ideas of trance and mysticism are definitely connected.

ADAM LEHRER: Your work often deals with this questioning of the manner in which art and culture is consumed, do you think that the theoretical utopias you explore could ever be possible considering the almost hyper-capitalist mentality of the contemporary art market?

MAI-THU PERRET: There is no place for this type of thinking within the art market, but the market is not the be-all and end-all and I think there are lots of people trying to find alternative ways of living and making art today.

Mai-Thu Perret_And Every Woman.jpg

ADAM LEHRER: In these projects, like the Crystal Frontier, does this entire world live in your imagination before you create the objects? Or do the specific objects and sculptural manifestations present themselves through the process?

MAI-THU PERRET: It's always a process, very little is fixed in advance. I set-up a broad set of parameters and then I construct what comes within it.

ADAM LEHRER: Did you ever consider writing literature? Your sense of story and narrative is really astounding even in terms of conceptual artists.

MAI-THU PERRET: I did when I was a student, but I was useless at constructing a narrative. I've always been better at imagining atmospheres or situations rather than proper stories with a beginning and an end. The open-ended space of the exhibition, where you can combine objects and moods to create a larger whole that the viewer passes through and pieces together in their minds, is probably more suited to this way of thinking. I've always been interested in experimental writing and poetry, and sometimes I think I will try to write again at some point.

ADAM LEHRER: It seems that your sense of “the utopia” is broken down into various different utopias; a choice of utopias if you will, as opposed to one all-encompassing utopia. As you said in an interview with the White Review, the Crystal Frontier’s utopia’s reasons for excluding men is different than Plato’s for excluding artists. Am I at all accurate in these assumptions?

MAI-THU PERRET: Yes, I think that's pretty accurate. The idea behind the all-female environment was to create a space where the dominant and habitual paradigm could be reversed in order for new possibilities to emerge, rather than a desire for exclusion.

ADAM LEHRER: Your work deals with the history of avant-garde within art, do you feel that this history has often been biased towards men and are you hoping to break down that history within your work?

MAI-THU PERRET: I definitely think that the history of art, like Western history as a whole, has been male-dominated. I'm interested in revisionist histories and histories that focus on forgotten or marginalized figures and realities. I like to use my work as a kind of speculative space to imagine different futures or untold stories.

ADAM LEHRER: You have discussed the idea of a desert as an ideal space or utopia because it’s outside the world, but do you ever recall being drawn to the desert aesthetically? \

MAI-THU PERRET: I absolutely love the desert, and the Crystal Frontier narrative was definitely born from my encounter with the American West. Deserts, like islands, are incredibly meditative places, and they can also be hostile and inhuman. I think this feeling of a geological space, where men are minuscule in relation to the immensity of the landscape, and where time is counted in millions of years rather than in human life spans, is important to the work.

ADAM LEHRER: Is it ever difficult to find the balance that allows your use of text and narrative to emphasize but not overshadow the viewer’s appreciation of the objects you create and present? 

MAI-THU PERRET: I'm very aware of the fact that if you give a lot of information to the viewer you risk cutting them off from the actual experience of the work and leading them into seeing only the things you have been talking about. That's one of the biggest problems with wall texts and all the didactic para-texts one encounters in museums. When I present text, it's usually in an attempt to subvert these institutional prompts and open other spaces of thoughts that the viewers can hopefully dive into. My text works are usually fictions that complicate the reading of the works rather than provide explanations for them.

ADAM LEHRER: In an interview with John Armleder, you discussed the manner in which people see art shows on the Internet, and how the experience is diminished. Do you purposefully try to create art than needs to be experienced in person in opposition to this notion?

MAI-THU PERRET: I don't think I create art specifically to counter the mediated reality of the screen worlds we inhabit today, but of course I think of my work as something that must be seen directly and which must almost be touched with the eyes to be really seen. That said, I love looking at art in books, and what's fascinating about art is that it exists both in the mind and in real space.

ADAM LEHRER: For Figures, what drew you to Bunraku and the idea of singer and musician sitting on stage as character and puppet?

MAI-THU PERRET: I've always loved the Asian forms of theater, like the Balinese puppet show or the Noh theater, where there is no backstage and no attempts at hiding the structures that support the experience of the performance. When I discovered Bunraku, I was amazed by the fact that the viewer's attention was constantly moving from puppet to manipulator, and by the strange relationship between the living and the inanimate this created. At times in Bunraku you can get so immersed in the movements of the puppet that [the puppet] seems more real than the people manipulating it, and I wanted to work with this idea. I was also drawn to the very special place the voice occupied in Bunraku, since the voice of the puppet is dissociated from it and clearly emitted by the singer who sits on the sidelines. It's not about illusionism; it’s about the way that the spectator assembles all these separate elements in his/her mind.

ADAM LEHRER: How did the experience of creating a narrative through performance and experience compare to that of creating a narrative through objects and examining those objects?

MAI-THU PERRET: In performance you are working in real time. What you create is instantly erased by new movements or actions. It's a very different type of memory and attention.  

Sightings: Mai-Thu Perret will be on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center until July 17, 2016. Text by Adam Lehrer. Photographs by Annik Wetter. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE 

Love Is Something Heavy: An Interview with Mixed Media Artist Sara Rahbar

Sara Rahbar is an artist who bravely transverses borders and permeates boundaries. Though often labeled an “Iranian American artist” (her family fled Iran in 1982 during the beginning of the Revolution), she prefers to relocate herself in a collective humanity. Transcending genre, her work ranges from photography and paint to textiles and sculpture. Rahbar’s work reflects this permeability, combining seemingly antithetical ideas – American flags sewn together with traditional Middle Eastern fabrics, hearts made out of military backpacks – in a beautiful and generative juxtaposition.

At the same time that Rahbar moves fluidly between varying geographies and ideations, she maintains immovable strength in herself and her work. She says, “I love strong things.” Here, she’s talking about working with bronze in sculpture. But this statement speaks to the artist’s attitude towards art, selfhood, and humanity at large. In a world where pervasive pain and violence can feel crippling, Rahbar is able to find peace – by going vegan, by thinking critically, and namely, by concretizing our anxieties through art.

Sara Rahbar will be showing new work from now until May 6th at NADA in New York City for Carbon 12 Dubai Gallery. We got to talk to the artist before the opening about exploring identity, documenting history through art, and communicating emotion in the age of superficiality.  

OLIVER KUPPER: Your work deals a lot with conflict and identity loss. This sense of tumult has really seeped into your upbringing. Do you have really clear memories of leaving Iran during the revolution?

SARA RAHBAR: No, I really don’t. I have blacked out a lot. I left Iran when I was like four and a half or five. And I can barely remember anything from that whole time period. In the beginning people just assumed that my work was about identity because my first body of work was the flag series, but I wasn’t thinking about identity  at all when I made them, it was always about so much more than that for me.

KUPPER: That’s really interesting.

RAHBAR: It’s more about what I’ve witnessed. I’m recording, like a camera, this history that’s happening around me. I don’t think much about my identity. I don’t care much about it, to be honest with you. The only time I care about it is when I am being labeled. Being labeled as “Iranian American” really bothers me. I just don’t feel like I’m any of those things. I’m just a human being living on the planet earth.

KUPPER: So at that age, you really had no memory of that. The art you’re making now came from a later period. And it was just a circumstance.

RAHBAR: I don’t consciously try to bring anything back into my work. Iran is such a faded memory for me. The last couple of times that I was there, I felt so disconnected. The memories are gone and it doesn’t feel like home. I’ve stopped going back. I don’t remember anything enough to actually be able to use it in my work. But there’s something there. The memories are gone, but the feelings are left. There’s a lot that is subconscious – frustration, anger, fear, confusion. But I’m definitely not trying to mesh any two cultures or identities together, I just follow my instincts when it comes to my work.

KUPPER: How old were you when you started to communicate your ideas through art?

RAHBAR: I think I started drawing when I was very little. I think that i was around five or six years old. I remember collecting stuff and drawing. Of course, I didn’t think it was anything serious. I just always liked making things.

KUPPER: You were being creative.

RAHBAR: Yeah. I think it was an instinct.

KUPPER: Were your parents really traditional, or did they support you being creative?

RAHBAR: They weren’t very traditional. My mom, and my brother were always very supportive. At the same time, I don’t think anyone really understood what the hell I was doing or why, including me. There definitely was a fear of, “How the hell are you going to be able to support yourself doing this?” I wouldn’t say anyone was religious, traditional, or conservative. Nothing like that at all.

KUPPER: It’s rare when a kid wants to become an artist.

RAHBAR: Unless you have a family that has a background in the arts, it can be be kind of scary thing. It’s hard to imagine how you’re actually going to sustain yourself from doing this.  There is a lot of unknown, like everything else in life.

KUPPER: What did your parents do?

RAHBAR: My mom was a social worker in Iran. She worked with runaways and abused children. But when she came to the US with my father they went into the restaurant business. You have your degree when you’re in your home country, and you come to a new country and you have to start from scratch. When we came here, we had nothing, and my uncle owned a restaurant. So that’s where my father went to work. It was easy and it paid the bills for a family of four. And later on they eventually went on to own their own restaurant.

KUPPER: Well, Americans love to eat. You open a restaurant, and Americans will be there to eat the food. 

RAHBAR: [Laughs.] Yeah, you figure, it’s a basic necessity…

KUPPER: You went back to Iran, and you worked on a really interesting photography series. What did you discover about your return and this work? What did you discover about yourself?

RAHBAR: That was when I finished school. And by “finished school,” I mean I ran out of money. So I had to figure some things out. I didn’t understand what it meant to have a body of work, or to do a series. I just knew that I had to find my own voice. My first instinct – and I always go by instinct – was to take a plane right from school in London to Iran. Everything happened like a domino effect. It was the 2015 election, so there was a combination of influences. First, I would go into the studio with all these things I had collected – costumes, objects and decorations that were used for horses and donkeys, random things I’d find in flea markets. At the same time, I was documenting the elections with sound and photography. For some reason, the camera was the first thing that I picked up when I went there. I always painted and drew, but it wasn’t enough for me. So I figured, I’ll do photography, sound, and projection. Painting always left me feeling like I needed more. Also, in Iran, I had a lack of space, so it was just easier to photograph. Everything was so new and different. I kept going back and forth, photographing and documenting. Now, when I look back on it, I think, “What the hell was that?” Not the stuff on the streets with the election, but the stuff in the studio. I don’t know what the hell that was. It was just about objects and color. I was trying to sort some things out. I’m more connected to the sculptures I’m doing now. I feel like the photographs were me trying to resolve something in my head.

KUPPER: Or it was an experiment.

RAHBAR: That period was very experimental. I was also super young. This was ten years ago. It was very raw. Like, “I like this. So I’m going to put it on my head and take a photo.” But then again I was just following my very basic and immediate instincts, and I still am. [Laughs.]

KUPPER: Did you ever feel like what you were doing was going to be censored while you were there?

RAHBAR: For sure. But I always knew that I would leave eventually. There was always this angst and discomfort that I felt when I was in Iran. I was always reminded somehow that I was a foreigner and a woman, and this always made me feel very uncomfortable. So I always knew that I could never show the work there, or stay there long term.

"There are so many different elements at play– violence, workers, pain, love; it’s the human condition.  Being alive on this planet and trying to go from one day to the next. I don’t really think it through too much. It’s instinctual. It comes from what I’m witnessing around me."

KUPPER: Is that why you left, to be able to show that work?

RAHBAR: No. It was like a relationship that comes to an end. It just ran its course. I remember waking up and being like, “I’m done.” I’m getting a plane ticket and not coming back.

KUPPER: Interesting. And you went to New York after that?

RAHBAR: Anywhere can be your home; it’s for you to decide what “home” means to you. You can restart anywhere.  And for me, New York has always felt like my home.

KUPPER: Did the flag series become before or after that? Or during?

RAHBAR: I made my first flag for my graduation project when I was still in London. It was right around that time of the crazy chaos of 9/11. I never thought that in 10 years I would make 52 flags.

KUPPER: As a mixed media artist, what do you enjoy about each medium that you employ, and what are some of their limitations?

RAHBAR: I can’t think of too many limitations. I love bronze, and I love wood, and there are so many different kinds of wood and bronze, and so many different techniques that can be used, I’m learning more and more every day. I didn’t specifically study art. So I don’t have any specific technical skills. I make things and I learn as I go along. And I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing. I make mistakes, I figure things out and I don’t let anything stop me, I keep moving forward no matter what. And I like that freedom. Sometimes, it’s a limitation and it can be frustrating. With bronze especially, because it’s expensive, definite, and time-consuming. But I feel like it’s good to make mistakes, learn and make your own way. Sometimes the mistakes are the best things that can possibly happen, good things can happen when you let go and let things come on their own, naturally.

I always knew that I was going to do sculpture. Working with textiles, painting, and taking photos, always felt safer for me somehow, it took me a while to make that jump to bronze and wood. I had to work up the courage, but now I feel completely free.

KUPPER: There’s a lot of freedom, but you also have a lot of control over your materials. It seems like control is also an integral part of your work. Would you say that’s true?

RAHBAR: I have issues with control. It’s a very strong underlying theme in my work– guns, police nightsticks– objects that hold things down, hold things together, and contain things. I use these objects a lot. It definitely stems from my childhood. I don’t like to feel controlled. I have issues with police and authority. It comes through in my work.

KUPPER: What can we expect with your new work being shown with Carbon 12 at NADA?

RAHBAR: It’s new work. I’m recording a history that is taking shape and form around me. There are a lot of old tools and guns used in these works.  They are like these historical sculptural totem poles. There are so many different elements at play– violence, workers, pain, love; it’s the human condition.  Being alive on this planet and trying to go from one day to the next. I don’t really think it through too much. It’s instinctual. It comes from what I’m witnessing around me. And If I sit there and analyze it too much, I will kill it.

KUPPER: It’s hard to live sometimes. It’s a very intense world.

RAHBAR: [Laughs.] Not to be depressing and negative, but that’s how it is.

KUPPER: It seems like we have art to be able to put those pieces together, like a psychological puzzle.

RAHBAR: Exactly.

KUPPER: Which is why your work is so interesting. Is your work about finding peace or coping with war?

RAHBAR: I would like to find peace. I find peace when I’m making the work. I was definitely not at peace when I was younger. I’m getting closer to it as I get older. As long as I’m working, there is peace within me. I’m very aware, that when I’m not working, I’m uncomfortable in my own skin. The work makes me feel comfortable, and allows me to be able to be with myself, and the world around me. My work is very therapeutic for me. It saves me from myself time and time again.

I’m very sensitive, I don’t like seeing humans or animals in pain. I’m a vegan, and it upsets me tremendously when I see animals being slaughtered and tortured. Images of war upset me, violence kills me, sometimes it feels like we are constantly trying to kill and eat everything around us. And there is so much happening at the same time, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel exhausted and paralyzed.

KUPPER: I agree with you. There’s a lot happening.

RAHBAR: You just want to hit pause, and tell everybody to stop what ever it is that they’re doing.

KUPPER: You just want to stop and have a moment to think, and get people to consider what they’re doing.

RAHBAR: Humans behave very badly. We are constantly attempting to kill off each other, this plant and all the living things that live on this plant with us.

KUPPER: The animal torture, the war– with the Internet, you have so much access to what’s going on. It gets even more intense because you can’t hide from it.

RAHBAR: Exactly. I go on Instagram, and I get so overwhelmed sometimes. The images, the videos – there’s so much access and information. And just because you aren’t looking at it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.

KUPPER: Do you have any other series that you’re working on? Or are you continuing to work with these materials? Do you have a dream project you want to work on?

RAHBAR: I feel like bronze is my dream material. I love strong things. Glass makes me super uncomfortable. Lace, soft fragile things make me uncomfortable. Bronze makes me so happy. I feel like I found my material. And mixing wood and bronze together, that’s my happy place. Right now, I’m working on a lot of isolated body parts in bronze.  I read this quote the other day by Benjamin Alire Saenz that really got to me: “Love was always something heavy for me. Something that I had to carry.” …That hit me supper hard when I read it, and It has been the inspiration for the body of work that I’m working on currently.

Bronze, on its own, can feel cold, but when I combine the bronze with wood and the objects that I collect, it softens it some how. Making objects with bronze and wood, that’s my happy place. 

You can see new work by Sara Rahbar at Carbon 12 Dubai's booth (4.05) during the NADA Art Fair in New York from May 5 to May 8, 2016. Intro text by Keely Shinners. Interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Photographs by Arash Yaghmaian

Uprooting Sculpture As We Know It: An Interview With Artist James Capper

text and interview by Scout MacEachron

James Capper looks a bit like a mad scientist. He is standing in the middle of a park holding a comically large box with buttons and joysticks on it. It’s raining and everything, including Capper, appears to be sinking in to the grass. His hair and clothing are soaked; his expression part exasperation, part intense focus. The box is attached to a Mini-Cooper-sized, spider-like machine that Capper is controlling. The machine raises and lowers it’s legs, taking chunks of grass with it. A small crowd gathers to watch. “I didn’t expect all the rain,” Capper says to no one in particular.

Capper is a 28 year-old British artist redefining what we think of as sculpture (i.e. a chiseled Greek naked person made of marble). Capper’s sculptures move. The one he’s currently controlling is a walking machine or earth marker. It looks something like a moon walker meets spider meets robot. The idea was born from a show at the Paul Kasmin gallery in New York in February called “MOUNTAINEER TEETH.” Capper’s goal with the Mountaineer design is to create a sculpture he can sit inside of and climb up a mountain. The exhibition was his first solo show in the US and included various sculptures and drawings. The gallery represents Capper. They are the ones that arranged for him to participate in this year’s Art Basel Miami where he showed one of his sculptures in the afore mentioned Collins Public Sculpture Park.

Capper is shockingly young for an artist of his prowess. He graduated from the Chelsea College of Art and Design with a B.A. and immediately began working. His work has been shown at the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Moving Museum in Dubai among others. Capper began drawing at an early age but it wasn’t until he learned how to weld that he turned his attention to sculpture. His interest in machinery, engineering and the industrial quickly led him towards the moving sculpture.

I met Capper at Collins Park to observe his moving sculpture. At over 6 ft tall he held an umbrella over my and his publicist’s heads as we ran to the nearby W hotel. Tucked on stools at the hotel café we chatted over hot coffee. I sat on his right side, Capper can’t hear out of his left ear.

In reality Capper is far from a mad scientist type in appearance and personality. He is thoughtful, genuine and soft spoken in the way that someone whose ego has yet to be inflated by greatness is. Capper is handsome, in a British way. As he talks it becomes clear that he is deeply passionate about his work. He has a vision and that vision is and will revolutionize the medium of sculpture. Expect great things from Capper in the years to come. And if one day you see a spider-like machine walking up a mountain with a man inside it is most likely him.

AUTRE: How did you end up at Basel this year?

JAMES CAPPER: Paul Kasmin started representing me in March of this year. I had a show at his gallery in New York called “Mountaineer.” It was a survey show of drawings and sculptures. There were eight sculptures that sat around the walls, which were the component parts of a much larger concept. They were called “Mountaineer Teeth.” And then there were something like 25 drawings. Initially, that’s where my work begins from, where ideas manifest.

AUTRE: Drawing?

CAPPER: Yes, drawing.

AUTRE: Tell me about your beginning as an artist. Were you the kid who grew up knowing what he wanted to do? You have a pretty interesting niche.

CAPPER: I’ve always drawn. I’ve always felt a lot more comfortable drawing than actually writing. In some ways, the best way I can translate ideas is through drawing. That’s where I started. I always had pencils and pens. Now, that’s still a fundamental part of my mannerisms as an artist. That is the one key element that drove me to art school. I knew that there was one thing I could always fall back on—that I could draw. My interest in sculpture really opened up in art school. I went to the Chelsea College of Art in London, and then I went to the Royal College of Art in London.

AUTRE: Do you remember what you drew as a kid? Was it abstract or normal kid stuff? Maybe some of both?

CAPPER: I would say it was just the normal stuff that kids my age would draw, but it really came out on my foundation. The drawing teacher told me, “You have a really straight line. It’s not like these scribbly, scattered lines.” That really opened up, for me, the possibility of making the drawings I make today. I’ve always enjoyed it. I’ve always had my quiet moment where I sit down and make drawings. When I make drawings today, I have to have some sort of solidarity or quietness to be able to convey ideas. I can’t do it when I’m under stress or pressure from the studio. That, fundamentally, is where the ideas come from. I draw from an open mind. They are a way of articulating thoughts.

AUTRE: Tell me a bit more about when you were in school. How did your interest in sculpture develop?

CAPPER: Before getting into Chelsea, I didn’t know if I would ever get into art school. I enrolled in a job where I ended up helping out some fabricators. They were doing heavy fabrication—welding stilts together. I understood, having drawn from a young age, that it’s not that far between a pen and a welding torch. You have to have a fairly steady hand, an idea, and a certain confidence in what you’re doing. The transition between being able to draw and being able to weld was like the transition between a saxophonist and a trombonist. It’s a very smooth transition. What I found before getting into Chelsea was that my fabricating skill in metals was getting quite good. I wanted to open that up in these workshops I took in art school, particularly in woodworking. I ended up doing a lot of abstract sculptures. I was very inspired by David Smith and Tony Caro. That’s what helped me get through my first year of art school. Then, I realized that I was really interested in making what I had made while welding—these big, still, moving structures. So, I started investigating that. Those are the primal beginnings of this language, this DNA of what I do now. It all came from fusing all these different things—primary drawing, a little bit of knowledge in fabrication, and art school.

AUTRE: Give me a brief sketch of your path from art school to now.

CAPPER: In my second year at Chelsea, I met this amazing young woman called Hannah Barry. She ended up inviting me to exhibit my work in a group show—what we called a “squat scene.” You guys probably have the same thing in the States—artists have exhibitions derelict buildings. That’s what started this relationship with Hannah and the other artists involved in this squat. A year later, pre-graduation, she opened a gallery in the Southeast part of London called Peckham. I had my first show there, which was a drawing show. From there on, this relationship unfolded. I’ve been working with her for eight years now, and she’s done her utmost best to help me produce ideas. For instance, this year, we produced “Atlas,” which was an idea for a work that I had in 2007. For both of us, we know how much of an achievement that is. It was an idea from, essentially, the beginning. We were commissioned by Henry Moore Foundation a couple of months back, and the show is still running in London.

AUTRE: From the drawing, when did you start building the type of work I saw outside?

CAPPER: There were a number of drawings that I made in 2009, when I was at the Royal College of Art, the sculpture school based in South London. I sat down one morning, having just enrolled in the place, seeing this phenomenal facility. But I didn’t have a penny to my name. So I thought, I can always fall back on my drawing. I put together a whole bunch of drawings on this translucent paper of my dream ideas. These ideas, predominantly, started the foundations of what I now call “Earth Marking.” They were a whole bunch of mobile sculptures. Hannah and I try not to use the word “kinetic,” because it gets confusing. We’re talking about heavy engineering, rather than something more whimsical. And we’re talking about innovation as well, which is something I don’t believe we see a huge amount of in the latter. Predominantly, I put down these ideas thinking, “If I had all the time and money and everything in the world, this is what I would do.” I just went out into the abyss. That was the first time I found this error in my thinking. It’s like a reconnaissance area, where I can go completely off the track of art, engineering, technology, etc., and come back with ideas and predictions. Things I wanted to aim my target to. These were the first target drawings, one of them being “Mountaineer.”

AUTRE: Tell me more about Mountaineer.

CAPPER: Mountaineer was a mobile sculpture that I would be able to sit inside—like an operating crane—and climb up a mountain. It has these four telescopic legs. It’s very much like a crane or an excavator, but very influenced by insects, on a large scale. It was making those drawings, and seeing films like Fitzcarraldo, where he pulls the ship over the mountain, that influenced me in this radical way. That was the beginning of this investigation, what I do and who I am today.

AUTRE: Have you ever had an interest in engineering? Did you teach yourself?

CAPPER: The biggest thing I had to teach myself in the latter years to make these dream drawings come true was building the relationships I have with my industrial supply chain. I needed to be able to delegate as well as manufacture things that are true to the drawings and the ideas. Being a good drawer and being a good welder means that the principles and the skeleton of the sculpture are together. Then, moving from the studio to the power coaters allows it to be painted very well. Their work is fantastic. Being able to work with the hydraulic engineers who make the hoses is also fantastic.

AUTRE: What is your London studio like?

CAPPER: They say this area of Southeast London—Kent Road—is quite a rough area. In the British Monopoly, it’s one of the cheapest ones on the board. But it’s getting good. Peckham—where we originally had the squat—has turned into a huge art district in Southeast London. It’s maybe partly to do with the amount of artists who have moved into the area. My area, when I moved into it, was predominantly industry. I moved into it to move next to the powder coating place so that I could paint. Now, there are warehouses full of artists.

AUTRE: It’s kind of like Brooklyn.

CAPPER: They are inspiring places to be. When the artists come in, they’re even more interesting. This area being full of warehouses—whether it could gentrify, I don’t really know. Unless they start knocking the warehouses down. That’s happened in London. It’s a good piece of London for artists, and it could be like that for another ten years, I imagine.

AUTRE: What’s your process like when you’re in the studio? What sparks your creativity?

CAPPER: It’s really quite mundane. It’s like a normal day. I start around 8, I stop for lunch around 1, and I finish at 6. It’s probably a bit of a longer day for most of the industry guys who start at half-8 and clock off at half-4. If you were to walk into the studio, you would think it was a manufacturing shop. I occasionally people dropping in and saying, “Hey, do you reckon you could weld this up for me, mate?” I have to try to explain to them. Sometimes we give in.

AUTRE: Tell me more about this piece specifically. How did it come about?

CAPPER: It’s been about two years work. I made drawings of a family of prototypes, Mountaineer being one of them as well. The drawing started off as this program where I wanted to investigate radical engineering to make things walk. I wanted some kind of propulsion that could transverse across many different kinds of terrain. It’s kind of like one of those things which already proves itself. A while back, I made this piece called “Midi Marker.” It moves like a caterpillar—expanding and contracting. It’s super simple. That went on to influence Greenhorn, which is a much larger work. I ended up making these four articulating arms—I call them flippers. It can steer around the forest. It’s amphibious.

AUTRE: When I think of a traditional sculpture, I think of something that does not move. What does it mean to have your sculptures move? You could have just created your drawings in an immobile way. Why did you add the movement element?

CAPPER: I saw this one work in Chelsea, in a very rare catalogue. It was Michael Heizer’s “Dragged Mass.” I loved it so much I photocopied it and made my own. The work was commissioned to be outside the newly built Detroit School of Art. He delivered something like a 60-ton piece of sandstone, and he had two bulldozers drag the stone until the machine stopped. What it did was it left this huge mark behind it. It sunk into the ground. He got into a lot of trouble, because it didn’t look like a sculpture. But that opened my eyes to what sculpture could be. That lead me on to an investigation in Land Art. Heizer was swapping his canvas and paintbrush for sticks of dynamite and a bulldozer. It reminded me of the relationship between drawing and welding. I was wanting to make something really pioneering. I didn’t want to be a copycat.

AUTRE: It sounds like a lot of your pieces interact with land in some way. There’s a contrast between the electrical, the mechanical, and the earth. Is that intentional? 

CAPPER: I say with “Earth Marking” that it’s not so much that I’ve made a glorified pencil making the ground. The mark making they make is a forensic analysis. It informs how I can make the work better. I want to make this highly methodical walking machine, which is radical engineering. The only way you can really investigate and move forward in it is to take into account all the marks left to perfect these things. For instance, I see a number of engineers copying animals when there are similar ways to get these movements. There are simpler methods, and more graceful movements. It makes the marks and the machine pieces of work in their own right. For instance, “Atlas” and some other works all sit on these concrete blocks that they made. They stand on the work that they made.

AUTRE: Collins Park, were they worried about the sculpture messing up their grass?

CAPPER: They were super amazing about it. In order to initially install these works, we were going to lay down all these sod to get the forklifts and the equipment in. And they were like, “It’s fine, just drive on the grass.” It’s the land of understanding.

AUTRE: On a day-to-day basis when you’re home, how would you describe yourself? You seem pretty put together and responsible—not like a crazy artist. What do you like to do when you’re not making art?

CAPPER: It’s difficult. Being a young sculptor—or any young artist—there’s a challenge of finding the initial production costs and budgets for these works. I’m pretty much working every day of the week. It’s totally a life thing. It’s part of my lifestyle now. If I’m not working, I’m thinking about it. If I’m not thinking about it, I’m working on something. This year, I made 45 drawings and 21 sculptures. I’m used to making about 4 sculptures a year. This year has been a really crazy year for me. Aside from that, I like to take trips out of London into the outside countryside, into Kent. I enjoy time out on the local scene in Peckham with my friends—the Peckham Badboy Club. I find time outside of what I do, but I’m mostly working. It’s what I love. I haven’t found anything so far to put me off of it.

AUTRE: Do you feel like, in the past year, you’re at that point in your career where everything is exciting? Or has it been steady?

CAPPER: I’ve been taking a lot more risks. I’m trying to get these dream works made. I’m sending them out of the studio with no compromises. That’s one of my biggest ethoses. It makes me less of a commercial entity. The main priority of this year—having the representation—is still making sure the work has the maximum output and impact. It’s not like resting back and watching things take over. It’s been a really challenging year, and I hope there are many more to come.

AUTRE: What’s your dream at the moment? The Mountaineer climbing?

CAPPER: Yeah. You have to always have a 25-year dream. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re aiming for. For an artist, you’re limitless. So yeah, there are ideas for Mountaineer. The machine comes in three sizes: a four ton machine, an eight ton, and then a thirty ton. That’s what I call the “Mountaineer Super Climb.” There are drawings for these. There’s a work that I call the “Walking Ship.” If you looked at it, it would look like a fishing boat of some sort. But I would modify it, I would put legs on it, so I could walk out into the sea. I would turn the cargo part into a studio. Ideally, I’d love to take it to Venice Biennale and have parties on it. Before Venice sinks!

AUTRE: What’s next for you?

CAPPER: Next year, I’ve been invited by the Sol LeWitt Foundation to participate in a residency, in Spoleto, outside of Rome. I also just found out that they’re interested in commissioning Number 10 in the long list. To get all of these ideas made may still take a few years, but that will be a great body of work. We’ll be testing those works in the mountains in Spoleto this summer. I’m really looking forward to that. It’s an expedition. 

You can visit James Capper's website here. Text and photographs by Scout MacEachron. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE